To entertain charitable feelings toward beggars, to indulge in pleasing internal tremors over a finding and a feeding--these things are well enough between walls or even in a clear moonlit field. But among trees that throw portentous shadows, among gloomy aisles hung with spiders’ webs, and ghostly ant-hills, it is a vastly different matter. The sudden scamper of the langur apes had been disconcerting: in the moonlight they seemed to have swollen to twice their normal size--which was big enough. But, remembering that ere now she had found them sitting on her very roof and had routed them single-handed with lumps of mud, Parmala steeled herself to ignore them, and soon had the satisfaction of hearing their rustle die away, down the ravine.
Then came the ditch. Like Nanga, she was unaware of the true inwardness, as it were, of the ditch; but, unlike Nanga, she had a very soft skin. She plunged in breathlessly, and found it deeper than she had thought; scrabbled a while at the crumbling bank, in deadly terror of the snakes that must surely be lurking in so rank a place; and emerged only at the cost of a torn sari and bleeding feet. But worse was to follow.
She was standing now under the trees, and under the trees half the ground was silver like water and half was black as ink. She scarcely dared move, for fear of falling into another pit even darker and deeper than her father’s ditch. But--she tried to keep the thought before her---she had come out for a purpose, to find a beggar, cold and hungry; to put food at his side, and watch him awake; to buy a curse...
Half-heartedly--more, perhaps, to satisfy an obscure pride than in any real hope of finding her beggar--she wandered in a little way, peering continually and, to keep her courage up, asking herself often where he might be.
“Kahan hoga? Kahan hoga?” she kept saying, and the repetition of words was helpful. It blotted out for a moment the whispering voices that seemed to haunt her here. But she had to stop ever again to draw breath, whereas the voices could whisper on without ceasing.
She was sure she heard footsteps--for how could she know that the falling of dewdrops on dry ground makes just that sound? They were behind her, in front of her. They were every where. But they were not the footsteps of a man, nor yet of a beggar boy.
She started fearfully. A memory had come back to her, something that she had heard of the place and long ago forgotten. Surely it was here that Dharma Nand’s grandmother had gathered her wood, before...
Yes, it was the place. Under these very trees.
On many a misty morning she had herself seen the old woman tottering in with her untidy bundle on her head. Then a morning had come--two years ago, was it ?--when, instead of seeing the old woman tottering in, she had seen the men going out. They had been out a long time. And they had brought back...nothing.
And what had they said, laughingly, under her window? That the tiger of the Ridge left no bones to burn?
And was there not a terrible old tale of a garden somewhere down the ravine, a garden where not even men dared go, because--
Fingers! Cold fingers! Something had touched her, her leg!
She would have screamed, but her voice seemed to freeze in her throat. She stumbled forward blindly, her hood blowing across her face, her hands fluttering before her, not seeing, not caring whither she went, so long as she could keep running. She never knew, till it was too late to turn, that she had set her back to the field and her face to the forest; and when at length--dizzy, choking, half fainting, with a pain in her side--she had to stop or drop, she saw nothing but trees. They had closed in, those myriads of dank gray trunks, to imprison her. There was no light between them now to tell her where the field lay; and what little light came from above served only to mark the moldering desolation of the forest floor, and the eerie shapes of the shadows, creeping in and out of gloom. She was lost. Hopelessly, cruelly lost.
With a piteous cry, she began to run again,--this time in little circles,--and inevitably, though she could not know it, downhill, away from the village.
Nanga, his eyes agog, his teeth chattering with excitement, sat where he was and watched.
Whatever it was, he had put it to flight. But, whatever it was, it smelt sweet and he wanted to keep it. He must not let it out of his sight.
Soon, very cautiously, he got up and began to follow. When Parmala stopped, he stopped.
When she ran, he kept her easily in view. But it was only when she had tripped over a root and fallen in a heap that he ventured to decrease the distance between them. Then, after the fashion of all wild things--creeping, halting, creeping, halting--he stalked the heap.
She lay as she had fallen. The heap did not stir. Only the black sari, flapping ever and again in the wind, puzzled him and held him from clutching her. He had never seen such a thing. It was like the wing of some great black bird.
Then, among the black, he saw something glittering--not all the time, but fitfully, as the breeze stirred the stuff--and crept a little nearer on hands and knees to see what it might be. So, as he hovered in suspense, now reaching out, now quickly withdrawing his hand, a kindly gust disclosed a foot very like his own, and, on the ankle, a brass ring.
He stared. But, for all that he was hovering on the brink of great discovery, he had as yet no inkling of what was in store for him. His mind gave no leap to tremendous conclusions when he saw that foot, shaped so like his own. He stared rather at the bright anklet, and it was the anklet that his hand sought. He wanted to add it to his treasures.
He caught hold of it and wrenched it suddenly. Then, as Parmala made a movement, let it go, and wavered, uncertain whether to run or stay.
A delicate arm rose out of the blackness. There was a sound like a sob; and then Parmala suddenly sat up.
Nanga saw her face; and, behold, it was the face, the very face that he had seen growing out of the firelight by the dwellings of men!
In his amazement he forgot to run away.
Man! He was face to face with the daughter of man!
He knew that. Though his brain rocked, the great light had somehow in that instant dawned for him. Much was revealed to him, though not quite all. For, though he was now in some subtle sense conscious of the existence of womanhood, there was as yet no space in his amazed mind for the implications of the discovery, to himself. He knew her for what she was, for something sweet and fragrant that belonged to the tribe of man; realized, too, that man was not invariably the dangerous, noisy blunderer that he had appeared to be; but claimed as yet no kinship for himself with that strange race. Though Parmala had arms and feet and face molded after the same pattern as his own, he did not jump to the resemblance. He merely stared, wonder and fear fighting for possession, into a face that echoed very nearly his own wild surmise.
“Brother...friend...sir, that is to say...”
Parmala’s voice quavered. Miraculously, after losing all hope, she was in the presence of her beggar; and at first she was inclined to regard it as something supernatural. She could not grasp it. How had he so suddenly appeared?
Yet he was real enough. He belonged to no dream. Only--she had expected it all to happen differently. In her plan it had been she who was to creep up to a sleeping boy and lay a dish of pulse (what had she done with that pulse?) by his side. Now the tables had been turned. Now it was she who had been awakened, she who was being stooped over. And in the moonlight there was a wildness about his face, a gleam in his eyes, that had certainly been no part of her plan. It was all very strange.
“I brought out a dish for thee...”
As if seeking something tangible, something solid and familiar to set against the eerie unreality of their meeting, she was fumbling for the brass dish.
Nanga, with a breathless sound, stiffened at the movement and eyed her doubtfully.
She ceased to fumble.
“The food that I brought--” she could speak only in nervous jerks--“the cooked pulse in a little brass dish of ours...hast thou by chance already eaten it...sir?”
No answer. Only a stare of bewilderment.
Could he be deaf and dumb, a mute? There were plenty such, of course, among beggars.
At the thought she somewhat controlled her tremors. No one need be afraid of a poor mute, with his ribs showing through his skin.
“The food? It was covered with a cloth, and the dish was good. Hast thou taken it?” Now she could speak quite calmly and distinctly, with even a hint of sternness. “Hast thou taken it, I say? Or hast thy foot in thy ear--beggar?”
The last, sharply. If he had not taken the food--and very likely she had dropped it in her flight--why could he not say so? But it was a bold stroke, and she trembled a little as she chid him. The boy, however, showed no resentment. He stared blankly as before, almost as if he could not wholly see her.
Definitely deciding to be afraid no longer, she pointed her fingers into her ears, signifying the question, “Are you deaf?”
He saw that well enough. He even tried to copy the gesture. From the apes, he had learned to imitate, and his fingers stole up toward his ears and tentatively wavered there. Then Parmala ventured to smile.
But he could not copy that. He had never learned to smile.
Now she opened her little red mouth and poked her finger into that, raising her brows, as if to ask, “Hast eaten?”
Vaguely he tried to imitate that gesture too, but missed his mouth. There was something infinitely comical in his face of surprise when his own finger poked his cheek instead of going into his mouth; and to Parmala, strung up as she was, relief came in a gust of laughter. She sat and rocked with laughter, till some magnetism of mirth seemed to work queerly on Nanga’s own lips, so that they too twitched. Awkwardly, as if afraid of the sensation that he was awakening, he tried to copy her laughing mouth with his own; tried and failed, for his mouth only puckered dolefully, and, with a curious little sound that was half chuckle and half sob, he hid his face in his hands.
Perhaps it was the dawning of self-consciousness. Perhaps at that moment he dimly realized for the first time his kinship with her, since it is of similarity that shyness is born. He was like a child, awakening through consciousness of others to that of self, and it was the child’s armor of defense--the drooping lip and the covered eyes--that he adopted. But had he been a man, versed in all the wiles whereby a man gains the interest or the pity of a maid, he could have adopted no better tactics than that simple, shy, utterly spontaneous gesture.
Instantly it awoke her pity, and she became woman to him. A moment before, she had al most wearied of trying to make him understand. Her remark “Hast thy foot in thy ear--beggar?” had had in it something of the peevishness that quickly becomes contempt. She had already forgotten what she had come out for--the curse that she was to buy. A little more, and she might have dubbed him a stupid mute and a half-wit, and left him at that. But now he might be as stupid as he liked, for by that one gesture he had appealed to quite a different set of feelings in her.
The beggar of her dream--fugitive and hungry, cold and humble--was reinstated at a wink. And it was with a quaint impulsive little movement that seemed to sum up much motherhood that she touched his wrist.
“There is naught, naught to fear, brother. Oh, thou are cold! thou art thin!”
Her voice was soft now; and, peering anxiously, trying to catch a glimpse of his face between his hands, she saw the weals on his arms; passed from them to the deep, crisscrossed scars on his breast; realized in one illuminating instant the whole pitifulness of him, and cried out at the sight.
What kind of beggar was this? Who had ill-treated him so? Weals and scars she had seen in plenty, on her own body, gifts of Piri Ram. But now it seemed that there was something in the world, man or beast or devil, even more cruel than Piri Ram. It was no bamboo cane that had made those scars.
Pitifully she touched them, one by one, soothing them with her finger tips. And though Nanga grew tense and shivered like a wild animal trapped, because the touch was soft and not sudden he suffered it. But he still kept his hands over his face.
She felt his arms, letting her fingers linger little by little, as one who gentles a horse; brushed wonderingly the hooked hands, so tightly pressed to his face; smoothed his hair, shielded him, crooned over him, all without thought, without any surprise at herself, but with a pleasure strangely knit into her pity. Though there were tears in her eyes, her lips smiled. What matter if he were unresponsive, if he shivered and covered his eyes? She had never mothered anybody before.
But soon Nanga ceased to shiver. These touches, these soft sounds, and the scent and the sense of her, were beginning to soothe him as nothing had ever soothed him: not his playthings, nor the sound of water, nor the scent of pines, nor the taste of honey. His strange hunger, the achings that he had sometimes felt, culminating in the vast hunger and the ache of this night, when he had cowered from his old companions for want of something that they could not give--all this was being soothed away. A restfulness, drowsy and wonderful, was settling on him, spreading warmly through all his limbs. Soon his hands dropped and he regarded her sleepily.
She was leaning down to him. He was looking up to her, with the moonlight shed on his face, and thus she saw the beauty of his eyes. Gone from them was the frightening glitter, the wild look of fear; and in place of it was a kind of gentle wonder, half awake. His eyes seemed to be searching her face; asking some question of her; perhaps even, as it thrilled her to think, thanking her for something already given.
So gazing, she felt a sudden glow of intense happiness. Her mission was made for her. No curse would she buy. But to minister, to answer, to fill that unknown want in those beseeching, beautiful eyes, and by them to be thanked again and again--what in life could be more delicious than that?
Then she held him closer, nursing him to herself till she saw his eyes close and felt his limbs relax. That he should fall asleep in her arms only made her the happier, for now she could indulge in little womanish curiosities about him. She could listen to his breathing; learn all the changes and expressions of his face, while he dreamed; and, at length, watch him wake and recognize her.
So, gaily, she settled herself for her sleepless night, forgetful quite of her own aches and pains, because his head was pillowed in her lap. And when the moon waned and darkness hid them, she was still sitting so, and still smiling at her thoughts.